How Different Were Cuneiform Scripts?

Susanne Paulus, Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago, answers the question “…the cuneiform scripts used in Assyria and Babylonia in the 1st millennium BC (Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods) were different. How different were these signs? Approximately what percentage of the signs were identical?” Just the sight of the images in the post brought back my (difficult but rewarding) study of Hittite several decades ago; I think I could write my name in cuneiform at one point, but I have no idea which script I chose (or whether I knew about these differences back then). I like the conclusion:

In the library of the famous Assyrian king Assurbanipal (7th century BC), tablets in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian scripts were found together. Jeannette Fincke, who studied the paleography of these scribes, discovered that the famous scholars who wrote the tablets had mastered both scripts. But their knowledge was not limited to the first millennium sign forms; sign lists (figure 4) prove that they also studied the earliest sign forms written more than 2,500 years ago. This shows the impressive continuity of Mesopotamian culture!

Thanks, Paul!


  1. The signs looked different, but they were still the same – more or less. For example, the sign “AN” remained the same sign whether it was written in 2000 BC or 1000 BC. Other signs might have dropped out of use and new signs added, but it was still the same cuneiform writing system.

    A bit like our own alphabet – the letter A used in Merovingian times looked a bit like this: cc. However, it was still read as “A”. Similarly, new signs were developed eg. U and V developed out of V, and others dropped out of use (eg. Q is not used in the Turkish alphabet).

    In essence, what we have is two or more different fonts for the same script, not different scripts.

  2. What sort is in your masthead, Mr Hat?

  3. Heh, I’d forgotten all about my masthead. Good question, but you’d have to ask the artist who designed it all those years ago — and she probably wouldn’t know either!

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Whatthefont ( offered 82 matches, but none of them looked even remotely plausible to me. It has a slight suggestion of Aquiline, but it isn’t Aquiline. Maybe your artist drew it as a one-off. Maybe if I edited out the background Whatthefont could do a better job, but that would be a significant amount of work. (I already inverted black and white.)

  5. If you’re talking about the “Languagehat” part, that’s the artist’s actual handwriting. Catanea was (I assume) talking about the cuneiform.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Old Persian and Ugaritic are cuneiform but not descended from Sumerian/Akkadian, they only imitate it in shape (and writing materials).

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